Another perfect moment in British colonial development

Another perfect moment in British colonial development

I am in London for a week doing some research with small area analysis, and on the weekend had a brief opportunity to actually see the city. As is traditional by now on my annual trips to London, I visited the World Wildlife Photography Exhibition (which was a bit weak this year, I thought), and having a bit of time to kill wandered up the road to the Science Museum. Here I stumbled on a small and interesting exhibition entitled Churchill’s Scientists, about the people that worked with Winston Churchill before, during and after the war on various projects, and Churchill’s powerful influence on British science.

This year will see the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and you would think by now that popular culture of the victorious countries would finally have got to the point where it is able to handle a more nuanced analysis of the politics of that time than mere hagiography. It’s clear that the allied powers were uncomfortable about some of their actions during the war: the careful elision of Arthur “Bomber” Harris and his fliers from peacetime awards is an example of British squeamishness about the morality of the bomber war, but this squeamishness doesn’t seem to have manifested itself in any kind of clear critical reevaluation of the behavior of the allies at war, at least in popular culture. This silence is starting to be broken by, for example, Antony Beevor’s uncomfortable discussion of rape in Berlin, or his discussion of the treatment of collaborator women in Normandy; but it is generally absent from public discussion. Churchill’s Scientists is, sadly, another example of this careful and deliberate overlooking of the flaws of wartime leaders and their politics when presented in popular culture.

The exhibition itself is small and interesting, walking us through various aspects of the scientific endeavours of the pre-war and post-war eras. It describes the scientists who worked with Churchill, their relationship with him and the public service, and how science was conducted during the war. Churchill was very close friends with a statistician who advised him on all aspects of war endeavours, and also was very supportive of operational research, which was basically an attempt to revise wartime strategy on the basis of evidence. The achievements of these scientists given their technological limitations are quite amazing: drawing graphs by hand on graph paper to attempt to explain every aspect of the statistics and epidemiology of rationing, conducting experiments on themselves to understand the effects of low-calorie diets, and feverishly working to improve tactics and technologies that were valuable to the war. The post-war efforts were also very interesting: there is a life-size installation showing the original model of myoglobin, which was studied using x-ray crystallography and then built by hand using cane rods and beads to create the three-dimensional structure. There is a telling quote about how scientists became used to asking not “how much will it cost” but “how quickly can we get it done and what do we need?” There are also some interesting examples of how the wartime expectations of scientists translated into peacetime success: they had contacts in the ministries from their wartime work, they were used to having funds and knew how to raise money, and they had access to hugely increased resources as the ministries dumped wartime surplus in universities and research institutes. In the 1950s this translated into rapid advances in medicine, genetics, nuclear power and astronomy, all of which are documented in the exhibition.

There are, however, some political aspects that are overlooked. Currently in the UK there is an ongoing debate about whether to stop conducting the Census because it costs too much, and it is clear that since the war there has been a shift in funding priorities and a move away from the idea that science should be funded at any cost. I would have been interested to find out how this happened: did Churchill change his attitude towards funding for science or was this a post-Churchill trend? Was Churchill the last of the Great Investors? What did subsequent conservative party leaders make of his legacy and how do they talk about it? Why is it that the country that invented radar, that perfected antibiotic production, and that contributed more than any other to modern geographical statistics and demography, can no longer “afford” the census? Was the war a high point and an aberration in the history of British science funding? Did its successes distort the post-war scientific landscape and expectations? None of this is really described in the exhibition, which limits itself to Churchill’s positive legacy, and doesn’t seem to want to explore how it was undone. There is also a bit of attention paid to female scientists in Churchill’s war efforts, including women who developed X-ray crystallography and did important nutritional epidemiology research. But we know that much of the computational work done in the war and immediately after was also done by women, but they were slowly squeezed out of the industry after the war. I would have been interested in some description of what happened to all those female scientists and ancillary staff after the war – were they forced out of science the way women were forced out of factory work, or did Churchill’s support for women in science during the war permanently change the landscape for women in science? It seems clear that Watson and Crick’s work – initially sparked by x-ray images of the DNA that are shown in this exhibition – must have been built on the work of crystallography’s pioneers, who were women. But where did those women end up when the war effort wound down?

The other aspect of this exhibition that is sadly missing is a discussion of Churchill and his scientists’ darker sides. We are introduced to the exhibition through Churchill’s love of flying; the website for the exhibition quotes him talking about new technologies in aerial bombing; and the exhibition itself talks about his support for a British nuclear weapon. But nowhere in the exhibition is his enthusiasm for terror bombing discussed, nor the unsavoury way in which he developed this enthusiasm, running terror bombing campaigns against Iraqi tribespeople in the 1920s. Arthur Harris is only presented once in the exhibition, dismissing a biologist who proposed a campaign of tactical bombing of railway junctions (he “wasted his time studying the sexual proclivities of apes,” was the dismissal); but nowhere is the corollary of this position – Harris’s lust for destroying cities – mentioned, or the extensive scientific work that went into developing the best techniques for burning civilians alive. In the year that western governments will demand Japan apologize for its wartime atrocities (again!), one would think they could at least mention in an exhibition on wartime science the extensive research that went into perfecting the practice of burning Japanese civilians alive.

In case one thinks this might have been just an oversight on the part of the curators, later we see a more direct example of this careful elision, when the exhibit focuses on Britain’s post-war nuclear weapons program. Again, we have been presented with Churchill’s direct interest in blowing stuff up; here we are shown video of a nuclear test, and discussion of the research that scientists were able to do on the environmental and physical effects of the bombs. The exhibition doesn’t mention that many of these tests, conducted in Maralinga in Australia, were conducted on land that Aborigines had been expelled from and were unable to return to. It also doesn’t mention the contamination of Aboriginal customary lands, any possible harmful health effects for Aborigines living in the area, and the controversies of the Maralinga inquiries and subsequent compensation for soldiers and workers. Not even a one sentence reference.

Given that we know Churchill was a deeply racist man who supported colonialism and had no interest in the rights of non-white British, it seems hardly surprising that he might have had a slightly cavalier attitude towards ethics in research and military tactics where it was directed against Iraqi tribesmen or Australian Aborigines. It seems like 70 years after the end of the war it might be possible to start talking about this stuff honestly outside of academia, and to publicly reevaluate the legacy of men like Churchill, and many of his senior scientists, in the light of everything we know now, rather than simply portraying all their efforts through only the lens of wartime heroism. Churchill was undoubtedly a great man and a powerful leader, and the world owes him a debt of gratitude. He was also a racist and a colonialist, and some of the decisions he made before, during and after the war may not have been either right or the best decisions for the time. It also appears that despite his greatness, the legacy of his interest in science and education was soon undone, and the reasons for this are important for us to consider now. What does it say about Britain that 70 years after the end of the war it is still not possible to honestly assess Churchill’s wartime efforts but only to extol his great contribution to science; yet 70 years later his contributions to science have been so far wound back that the government is considering abolishing the Census? Does such hagiography benefit Britain, or British science? I would suggest not.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and we are going to see a lot more public discussion of the actions and contributions of the great people of that time. I fear that this discussion is going to be very shallow, and sadly empty of any attempt to critically reassess the contributions of the people involved, and how they shaped our post-war culture. This exhibition is a good example of how the war will be presented this year: stripped of moral context, all uncomfortable truths banished from discussion, and all long-term ramifications for post-war politics and culture carefully sanitized to ensure that no difficult questions are asked, or answered. Perhaps we aren’t doomed to repeat history, but I think this year at the very least we are going to be bored stiff by it.